John Elway, the player, knew a few things about freelancing on the field and getting hot at key moments of a game or a season—even when everyone watching couldn’t believe he had the audacity to make that throw, attempt that scramble, or call that audible.
John Elway, the executive, is demonstrating many of the same qualities he had when he wore a jersey to work every day. We observers scratch our heads or cover our eyes in reaction to some of his personnel decisions. We marvel at the audacity—a more fitting word, then and now, would be the cajones—it takes to do some of the things Elway has done during his five-plus years running the Broncos’ front office.
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The latest example of this is unfolding right now. As the 2016 season was dawning, I wrote about the “problem” the Broncos had at quarterback, a position often called the most important in sports. After Peyton Manning retired, the team had his successor, Brock Osweiler—a guy Elway had handpicked in yet another surprise move—all ready to go. Sure, Osweiler would be replacing an all-time great, but someone had to do it, and the young veteran seemed to be no worse than a competent long-term starter.
Instead, the Houston Texans swooped in and stole Osweiler in March, and suddenly the Broncos’ only QB option was a guy, Trevor Siemian, who in the spring of 2015 was injured, coming off an utterly unremarkable college career, and likely would’ve gone unselected had the Broncos not nabbed him with the 250th overall pick in that season’s draft.
The decision to let Osweiler walk left the defending Super Bowl champs with one nobody behind center and bupkis to back him up. What made this so puzzling was how passive Elway seemed about convincing Osweiler to stay. Yes, he had to preserve valuable salary cap space to re-sign Von Miller, but c’mon: This is your quarterback. Who understands the value of this position better than Elway?
He further flummoxed us by signing perennial punch line Mark Sanchez, ostensibly to manage games until 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch was ready to play. (Most NFL pundits thought Lynch had promising upside but needed a season or two to develop.) Then Sanchez arrived and did absolutely nothing to distinguish himself, and the Broncos cut him before the end of the preseason. This left Siemian as the starter, which no one in the universe would have predicted a year ago.
No one, perhaps, except John Elway. He and his talent evaluators obviously saw something in the kid that no one else did, because Siemian ended up winning the job rather easily. Now the Broncos are 3-0, and Siemian has posted almost exactly the same numbers through three weeks—five TD passes, three interceptions, and about 750 passing yards—as Manning did through week three in last year’s championship run. (Siemian’s numbers also are considerably better than Osweiler’s have been in Houston so far, at a savings of about $17.5 million for the Broncos.)
While it’s important to remember that the aging and injured Manning’s stats plummeted as 2015 wore on, quality NFL QBs are such unicorns that Siemian’s early results and composure virtually guarantee him a spot as someone’s starter or backup for the next three-to-10 years. In fact, some respected NFL reporters are already saying that Siemian could be attractive trade bait, maybe even this year, because the Broncos feel Lynch will be ready to run the team much sooner than everyone else thought.
To recap, in about six weeks the team’s signal-caller situation has gone from being sparse and full of uncertainty to suddenly, distinctly abundant. If the Broncos decided to trade Siemian today they could probably get no worse than a third- or fourth-round pick for him, and it’s primarily because the team’s head honcho is running his organization with the same screw-you, gunslinger mentality he brought to the field.
John Elway could probably have been named mayor of Denver or governor of Colorado by acclamation since about 1986, and if he pulls off this particular audible it might be the most impressive feat of his legendary career. If states had emperors, is there any doubt who ours would be?
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.